Understanding strategic engagement: an exploratory study of perspectives on philanthropic investment in programmes for children and youth in Ireland
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In Ireland, the term ‘philanthropy’ has connotations of charitable beneficence and is often associated with nineteenth century forms of giving to alleviate poverty in areas that subsequently become the responsibility of the State. However, following a period of significant investment by philanthropic foundations in social programmes that began in the early 2000s, a new discourse has emerged to reflect the practice of philanthropy that is considered relevant to the functioning of modern social democracies. Characterised as ‘strategic’ in orientation, this entrepreneurial style of philanthropy is accompanied by a set of goals for creating impact and adopts a public policy focus. This thesis is an exploratory study of strategic philanthropy as a distinct approach to social investment as experienced by Ireland’s children and youth sector. In a culture marked by both lack of previous engagement with foundations and scant public debate on philanthropic intervention in social issues, the study addresses a need to build an understanding of this new form of philanthropy. It is based on interviews with a cohort of high-level, expert informants including foundation representatives, State actors and nonprofit beneficiaries. The research was influenced by theoretical frameworks based on the attribution of unique roles to foundations in society and informed by the literature on how to conceptualise and implement a strategic approach to philanthropy. The study highlighted a number of challenges for foundations seeking to influence public policy including divergence of opinion as to the degree of involvement perceived as legitimate intervention by other actors within a sector. Key findings suggest that philanthropic intent to influence public systems and services needs to be founded on the elaboration of clearly defined, mutual goals with statutory partners and that foundations’ contribution to best exercised through their social innovation and convening functions. The research also proposes a framework for understanding strategic engagement that identifies areas of intervention where foundations had the greatest capacity to be effective.